A Beginner’s Mind

We ran a training last March on human centered development. One of the trainers told us  that developing a beginner’s mind allowed us to process information and imagine new solutions. As you may recall, a beginner’s mind is that terrified, curious, excited brain that we experience when doing something we have never done before. It is the brain that our kids often have when we push them into dance class or that community play. It is the brain that adults exercise less often as we stick to the hobbies or tasks that we have done for years.

I was thinking about adopting a beginner’s mind last night at pottery class. I had never potted in my life—not even casual clay play—until a friend invited me to join her at a class she loves. I’m pretty crafty with fabric, paint, or a glue gun, but clay has not been a medium I have dug in to.

There I was on the wheel with balls of dark brown ready to spin—and spin out of control—when I realized I was having an out-of-body experience thinking about my teaching in terms of my own learning.

  1. Empathy

Sitting in an uncomfortable chair, not really sure what I am doing and knowing that I am making a mess doing it is how so many people I train feel coming into the room. I regularly start a training asking how people feel about being on a board or learning finance, and they say overwhelmed, confused, tired, hopeful. That’s what I was feeling while my coffee-cup-to-be turned into a projectile landing on my neighbor’s wheel. I feel your pain, fellow learners. You can only sustain a beginner’s mind for so long before you need to retreat back into something you know.

  1. Practice

My determined teacher remained committed to my success. She spent at least 30 minutes holding her hands over mine trying to teach my fingers how much pressure to exert. She wasn’t even looking at the wheel as she locked her fingers into place and hands together for support. Experience had taught her hands what to do. My job was to practice ball after ball after ball into I had the muscle memory I needed to do this on my own. Muscle memory turns into habit; practice turns into mastery. Eventually. I am told.

  1. Sense of humor

As it turns out, if you don’t make the wall of your structure evenly, the centrifugal force of the pottery wheel renders the narrower band thinner and thinner until the two pieces separate and the top part flings into space. If you don’t change how you are holding your hands, it happens every time you turn clay. How many times can a patient teacher watch clay fly into the air before she can’t help but laugh. When she laughs, I laugh. Somehow, laughter makes failure feel better. For a short time at least.

  1. Team

I learned through this class that there is a group of women who are devoted potters who spend nearly every Saturday in the studio. They are good because they have put in a lot of hours at the wheel and know every glaze in those pickle buckets under the table. They are willing teachers when asked. And those sitting next to me in class? How gratifying it is to commiserate as we both struggle to shape just one coffee cup that doesn’t end up in the garden with a leak. It takes a team of teachers and partners to muddle through a beginner’s mind.

fullsizerender_1So far this quarter I have brought home one small bowl. The glaze on the inside didn’t turn out right. I told my friend that I thought it looked artsy that way. She scoffed. I brought the bowl home and showed my teenage daughter what I had made. “The glaze on the inside is cool. Looks artsy!”

So fellow learners, I feel your pain. At the end of the day, what we produce may not be perfect, but it expresses our curiosity in ways that might re-define success. Or not. Maybe it just gives us the pleasure of feeling a deeper sense of ownership of the salsa bowl.

When did you last adopt a beginner’s mind?
How did it make you feel?
What did you notice about you, the work that you were trying to accomplish or others around you?

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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